San Diego Tops List of CA Solar Cities
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
San Diego is the top solar city in California, according to a recent report by Environment California. What has San Diego done to earn the No. 1 ranking? And, what more can our region do to reduce its carbon footprint? We speak to representatives from Environment California, and the California Center for Sustainable Energy about San Diego's solar credentials, and the city's environmental goals for the future.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. For people who think all that green energy talk sounds nice but isn't going anywhere, a recent headline may come as a wake-up call. San Diego now has more rooftop solar panels than any other city in California. Officials say the number of solar panel installations has been steadily climbing in the last ten years, and in the last few years has increased dramatically. San Diego has almost 2,300 solar roofs that together could generate enough energy to power 12,000 homes. It's true that San Diego and the rest of the state still have quite a way to go to reach the California legislature's goal of a million solar-powered homes by 2017, but the pace of installations, plus the rebates going into effect, and the public interest in green, sustainable energy all make energy advocates believe that goal is not impossible. With me to talk about San Diego's becoming a solar city are my guests, Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean energy advocate with Environment California, and Bernadette was the lead researcher of the recently released "California Solar Cities" report. Bernadette, welcome to These Days.
BERNADETTE DEL CHIARO (Clean Energy Advocate, Environment California): Thank you. Great to be here.
CAVANAUGH: And Andrew McAllister, director of programs at the California Center for Sustainable Energy. Andrew, welcome back.
ANDREW MCALLISTER (Director of Programs, California Center for Sustainable Energy): Thanks, Maureen. Glad to be here.
CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you've installed solar panels on your home or if you're thinking about doing it, give us a call with your questions or your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. Bernadette, I was mentioning that I was astounded by the fact that we came in first in San Diego. How did San Diego receive the distinction of being the top solar city in California?
DEL CHIARO: Well, I mean, it is surprising. I think San Diego is a little bit of the dark horse and some people would assume Los Angeles, of all places, would be number one and I think that's a whole other story unto itself of why L.A. isn't, but, you know, Los Angeles, we basically took data from around the state, from over the past 15 years in California and just simply crunched the numbers and saw that San Diego on both a sheer number of solar installations, the number of solar roofs, we like to say, and also in terms of the amount of energy that those solar systems are generating on a daily basis, that San Diego comes out number one. And this makes it not just number one in the state but number one all across the country as California's the country's largest market for solar power in and of itself.
CAVANAUGH: And I think part, perhaps, of the surprise involved in this is that San Diego has not really been considered the top solar city in California for awhile. I mean, what changed in San Diego over the last few years?
DEL CHIARO: Well, I think, you know, Andrew may have something to add. From my statewide perspective, you know, overall the whole state saw a huge jump in interest in solar power right after the energy crisis and I think San Diego was particularly hard hit both economically and just from sheer experience and the shock of having our electricity go out like that. And people realized and woke up and realized that, you know, relying on the Enrons of the world is not the way to go and that we need to change the way that we generate electricity. That combined with continually rising electricity prices and a growing concern for global warming and, you know, desire to, you know, just be more energy independent, I think is spurring people to be more interested and then, of course, government programs are critical and particularly sustained programs like what we have now in California and at the federal level where we have, you know, financial incentives being given to homeowners and businesses to invest in solar power, and that's really now what's putting us over the edge and getting us on track to building a million solar roofs over the next ten years.
CAVANAUGH: And before I bring Andrew into the conversation, I do want to ask you, Bernadette, that solar usage, as you say is increasing across California and in rural areas sometimes that's dramatic. What can you tell us about that?
DEL CHIARO: Yeah, I mean, some of the other really interesting findings of our report, which if anybody wants to look at it, it's online at www.environmentcalifornia.org. But, you know, Fresno, the City of Fresno has more solar power than the City of Los Angeles. Bakersfield has more than San Francisco. Really, from, I like to say, farmhouses to firehouses across the state and now the wave is taking off across the country. The face of solar power is changing. It's no longer sort of limited to this niche market, you know, in maybe kind of traditionally ultraliberal, wealthy areas, it is now being taken very seriously and embraced by all walks of life and all types of folks around California and, like I said, across the country as well. And this is great because, ultimately, you know, more sunshine falls on the earth in one hour than the entire human population uses in a whole year and all we need to do is tap into just a fraction of this pollution free energy to power up our country and state and nation and, you know, rebuild our economy and solve a myriad of environmental problems, so this is all – it's all good news and it's very exciting. You know, one other thing I should actually mention is that San Diego, unlike other cities, is pretty unique in having, and why it's great to have Andrew on the phone here, but it's unique in having a nonprofit organization, Andrew's organization, administering the rebate programs and really doing an excellent job of educating consumers about the ability to go solar in all its forms as well as invested energy efficiency and other energy solutions.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean energy advocate with Environment California and Andrew McAllister, Director of Programs at the California Center for Sustainable Energy. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And, Andrew, what are your thoughts about San Diego being named the top solar city in California? Does that make you proud?
MCALLISTER: Absolutely. I mean, you know, CCSE's been working hard for a long time on this, as has, you know, I don't want to claim all the credit here. You know, thanks for the plug, Bernadette. But, you know, there's a lot of people that are – there are many solar companies in the region, around a hundred of them in various aspects of the supply chain, particularly a very strong installer base and good options for consumers who want to go solar. You know, San Diego is unique in some sense, you know, relative definitely to – as compared to northern California. I mean, it's a fairly one-story town, there's a lot of roof space per person. If you go inland, particularly, there's a lot of energy consumption that's related to space conditioning, particularly air conditioning. So solar power complements those houses quite well, take advantage of the roof space, generate during the day when you have these high A/C loads and the average system size for solar is actually larger here than it would be in a place like San Francisco. So that contributes somewhat to the marketplace, the advance in the marketplace of solar energy because it does actually – you know, a system here in San Diego with all the sunlight we have produces actually more energy for a given investment than it would in northern California.
CAVANAUGH: In many ways, San Diego is a natural for solar power.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, I want to talk about rebates and the incentives a little bit later but I also want to explore what you mean about some of the changes that have happened that have allowed solar power to become more popular. Are there actually changes in design? Are there more options out there for people to choose if they want to go solar?
MCALLISTER: Well, I think what you're seeing, just building on what Bernadette said, is you're seeing a deepening of the marketplace so not only is it, you know, relatively wealthy people along the coast, it's institutions, it's city governments, it's school districts, it's a lot of different market segments that are seeing, hey, you know, this really fits what we need. You know, I think the institutional environment is very different so it's a very different marketplace but they see that they can do longterm planning and sort of use solar as a hedge against rising electricity rates. You know, we haven't talked about solar thermal, so our water heating, yet but, you know, definitely think that that's got a huge future in California as well to avoid largely natural gas consumption.
MCALLISTER: It's all headed down the same path which is we know we have to reduce carbon emissions and this is an increasingly cost effective way to do that. And I think what you're seeing is an education of the marketplace, tools available for people to evaluate their particular situation rather than just take somebody's word for it. They can actually look at it and say, hey, you know, I'm going to look at my electricity bills, my natural gas consumption, my house and look at all the options available to me to save money and help the environment and really put more money in my pocket.
CAVANAUGH: Is that the kind of service that the California Center for Sustainable Energy provides? I mean, what do you offer to residents who are interested in installing solar power on their homes?
MCALLISTER: So we, first and foremost, were chosen by the California Public Utilities Commission to work with SDG&E. After all, it's ratepayers who pay for all these incentive programs, right? So we're all paying into these funds every month and it's really to our benefit to get back from them by putting on solar and taking advantage of these programs. But CCSE administers that program so, you know, when you get a rebate, we'll send you the check or your contractor the check for that incentive. So that along with that program, we have lots of educational workshops at our site out on Kearny Mesa. You can check our website, energycenter.org, to find out all the things that we do but we provide a lot of support. One thing that we've been working on with the City of San Diego but has a lot of spillover to the whole region is the San Diego Solar Map, which we also rolled out last week, together with the mayor. And that's a neat resource. It's sort of half marketing and half education for the program but increasingly that's going to have tools on it that enable homeowners and business owners to go in and evaluate their particular situation, even zoom in on their roof, see if their neighbors have any solar. It's a Google Map-based tool. And we're going to be adding some analysis tools to that so people can see, hey, you know, my goal is to reduce my carbon emissions and…
MCALLISTER: …so what size system works for me? Or my goal is to reduce – is to sort of get the most bang for my buck, the biggest return on investment so that may be a different system size. So it just enables people to make educated decisions about what they want to do when they go solar.
CAVANAUGH: And how do they access that solar map?
MCALLISTER: It's at sdsolarmap.org, I believe.
CAVANAUGH: And – Okay, we'll confirm that as well.
MCALLISTER: Okay. Sorry.
CAVANAUGH: Let's go to the phones. A lot of people want to get in on this conversation. Ken is in La Mesa. Good morning, Ken. Welcome to These Days.
KEN (Caller, La Mesa): Hi. I've got a – I understand that years ago the law said that if you produced more electricity by solar that the utility had to purchase that from you and had to pay the highest rate that it cost them to make electricity. In other words, they make it by natural gas and oil, they would have to pay you at the natural gas rate. Now I've heard that there is something going on now. Is it – Just – Just one problem, I have a very low consumption of electricity. I'm probably the greenest person that you've ever heard of and it would not pay me to put solar on the roof. But if I thought I was going to make money at it, I would do it.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that call, Ken. And, Bernadette, where…
DEL CHIARO: Yes.
CAVANAUGH: …does that stand?
DEL CHIARO: Yeah. There's a lot of different issues, actually, that the caller raises are all excellent. First of all, everybody should know that we do right now, in California, have a program called net metering. And this net metering program, the way it works is if you installed a solar panel on your home, let's say, at three o'clock this afternoon, chances are that solar system is going to be generating more electricity than your home is using at that point in time. There is a state law that requires SDG&E, in San Diego, to basically take that electricity, it sends it back to the grid, your meter literally spins backwards and SDG&E gives you a credit. That credit then goes to count against your electricity uses that you use at night or whenever the sun isn't shining. And that value of that credit is at full retail rate and so the caller's correct that that is basically at whatever you would have purchased – whatever price you would have purchased that electricity at three o'clock in the afternoon, that's the value of the credit so it's the highest value you can basically get for that electricity. There is a limit to that policy, however, that is if you generate more at the end of a calendar of energy – end of a year, essentially, if you still generate more electricity than your home uses, the current net metering law says that the utility gets that, all that electricity, for free and your – you sort of zero out your credit line with the utility, if you will. We're actually sponsoring a bill right now in the state legislature, it's AB-920, that would require the utilities to basically pay you back for the electricity at the end of the year and we really could use support for that bill and so people interested in more information on that or wanting to call their state legislators, that would be terrifically helpful. And then the third part is this idea of just can't we simply use our rooftops to make money? And that is a whole other concept. It's sort of above and beyond just offsetting your own electricity usage at your home or business, and that's another policy that California is in the process of adopting and it's – it has a very clunky title to it. It's called a feed-in tariff but the idea behind it is you have a rooftop, whether it's a parking lot or a garage or what have you, and you build solar on it, you can plug into the grid and just sow those electrons at a guaranteed price over 20 years and make money. And that's something that's sort of the next frontier, if you will, for solar.
DEL CHIARO: Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for that. That was a comprehensive answer.
MCALLISTER: I'll pitch in here. That was a great description of net metering. And the caller's issue that he doesn't have much consumption, you know, the way our electricity rates are structured is that the baseline and just above baseline rates, so if you don't use much energy, your – the – all your kilowatt hours, those are relatively inexpensive. And once you use more and you go over a certain threshold, the cost per kilowatt hour tends to go up or does go up. So if you're in the highest tier and you're paying that marginal electricity rate of, you know, 30 cents or so per kilowatt hour, then using solar to offset that consumption makes a lot of sense. That's very cost effective.
MCALLISTER: But if you're like the caller and you're down in the baseline area where it's costing you 12 cents per kilowatt hour, 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour, then it's going to be less cost effective and you might want to do it for other reasons because you want to decrease your carbon footprint or go, you know, net energy zero or something like that. But each – I guess the point is that each building and customer is slightly different and does need – can benefit from some kind of tailored analysis and so educating the marketplace and giving people tools so that they can do that, it's really part of the key to going massive with solar.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Let's take another call. Steve is calling from Scripps Ranch. Good morning, Steve. Welcome to These Days.
STEVE (Caller, Scripps Ranch): Yeah, good morning. My first time on this program. Thank you very much for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, thank you.
STEVE: I put a solar system in virtually a year ago out here in Scripps Ranch and when I was going through all my calculation, you know, I found out that the – you were talking about net metering and how the SDG&E does not reimburse for excess usage. Not only that but they charge you a certain amount per month just for distribution. So even though you're generating more electricity than you're using, you're still getting a five dollar charge or so per month just by being hooked up to the grid. Is there anything in the new bill that's going to be – or is it likely to be able to get some reimbursement for excess energy production? Because, you know, I mean, it's a lot more that I could do at home like installing LED lights, that sort of thing but, you know, you start thinking what's the point if you're not getting any extra money out of your system because SDG's (sic) getting it all for free.
DEL CHIARO: That's exactly right. There's – it creates a perverse incentive in California for people to not invest in energy efficiency as a result once they've gone solar. Obviously, we want people to be as efficient as they can before they go solar but once they do, we don't want to create this perverse incentive so that's exactly what the bill would do. If you create surplus electrons over the course of the year, it requires that we require SDG&E to purchase that and, I've got to be frank here, it needs – this bill needs to pass the Senate and so everybody listening, if all of you agree with me, please call your state senator because we need to get this bill passed and onto the governor's desk.
CAVANAUGH: Andrew, I want to ask you, what are the subsidies and rebates available now to put solar panels on your roof?
MCALLISTER: Yes, so they're different for residential and commercial. You can go on our website and find all the details so, you know, I don't to – too many numbers here.
CAVANAUGH: Sure. Yes.
MCALLISTER: But roughly about a fifth to a quarter, 20 to 25% of the upfront cost is – can be recovered in the form of a rebate and for homeowners, that's generally a one-time, upfront rebate. For larger systems, that's actually paid on an energy production basis over five years. So there's two different kinds of incentives, but it's all the same idea. And then there's also a 30% federal investment tax credit which you can take off your taxes.
CAVANAUGH: And that goes on for how long?
MCALLISTER: That is – I believe it's been extended through into like 2016, is it, Bernadette? Which…
DEL CHIARO: That's right. Yep, it's basically up in…
MCALLISTER: It was extended for ten years.
DEL CHIARO: Umm-hmm.
MCALLISTER: So that's going to be available, which is great. That gives some continuity to the marketplace and nobody's playing guessing games about whether they have to do it this year or next year and that really helps. So, you know, roughly half the system, you're going to get back in one form or another. Just the upfront capital cost, you'll get that back in your pocket. And then there are – net energy metering is another benefit, right. That is a program that really makes solar most cost effective. So you've got all that going for you, and then there are some emerging financing programs mostly at either the county or the city level that are rolling out gradually, slower than we'd like but they are rolling out, to allow homeowners to – home and business owners to finance the remainder of the system over their – over up to 20 years on their property tax.
CAVANAUGH: Right, their…
MCALLISTER: And so that's a nice advancement. There's a law that's called Assembly Bill 811 and there are other variations of that, particularly the Melaruse District that a lot of charter cities are already doing, the larger cities, but they enable this mechanism that will be bringing a lot of capital to the playing field here for getting solar and energy efficiency installed in existing residences.
CAVANAUGH: There is a San Diego City pilot program that's rolling out supposedly this fall that would allow people to install solar panels, obtain loans, and then pay them off over 20 years through their property tax bill.
CAVANAUGH: So we'll keep watching that one. There are so many people who want to get in on this. Let me take a few more calls. John is in Clairemont. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days. Oh, I'm sorry. David in Julian. Good morning, David.
DAVID (Caller, Julian): Yes. I would thank you for taking my call. The first question which is the gentleman mentioned a website and I didn't quite get it down. So…
CAVANAUGH: That was the solar map website? We do have that for you. It's sd.solarmap.org…
CAVANAUGH: …slash solar.
DAVID: Okay, and the second question is I live in the Julian area and the issue of fire certainly is major and when the electricity goes off, obviously the well water shuts off as well. So is there a consideration for an affordability program for maintenance, solar maintenance, for the well only?
CAVANAUGH: That's an interesting question.
MCALLISTER: Let's see, so the rebates are available for a system that's up to the energy consumption of that system. And, really, the – I think the issue you're addressing is that you – when the power goes out, your – So, let me back up a little bit. Any solar system – most solar systems that are installed right now under the California Solar Initiative and that get a rebate, they must be grid connected, okay? All solar systems, they must be grid connected. And the vast majority do not have any storage associated with them, so like a battery or, you know, that kind of thing, that will allow the system to function after the grid goes down. So in order to solve your issue, you need to have some kind of a backup generator and that could be, you know, battery storage which would be relatively pricey. A lot of people out – in your situation might have, you know, a gen set sitting there just to use for a few hours a year when the power goes off because it's not like it's that many hours. But, again, I think the lesson, you know, the message, is that your particular situation needs a bit of analysis to figure out what's best for you and so that you can make the best investment. As far as I know, for sort of stand alone systems like that, there are not incentives available but there are – you know, the storage technologies are evolving very quickly and it may be that the State of California comes up with a program to try to promote those. I know that there's a lot of interest on the part of the Department of Energy to look at energy security issues, energy reliability issues, and there's a lot of technology development going on that ostensibly, you know, presumably anyway will be – will have some programs associated with it eventually.
CAVANAUGH: We have time for one last call. Josh in Carmel Valley. Hi, Josh.
JOSH (Caller, Carmel Valley): Hi, there.
JOSH: I'm a general contractor and out of all the things I do installing solar's really one of the most enjoyable. The question I have is why don't they require it on all new construction? With new construction, you'd be able to put the cost of the solar into the whole financing of the house itself.
DEL CHIARO: Aha.
MCALLISTER: That's happening.
CAVANAUGH: Take it, Bernadette.
DEL CHIARO: Okay, I'm so glad you – the caller brought this up. Yes, we tried to pass a law actually four years – no, not – three years ago to mandate solar in all new construction. What we ended up getting out of the state legislature was a mandate to offer. So starting, actually, next year in 2010, every single new commercially built home in California will have to be – have solar panel as an option right alongside granite countertops. But we ultimately need to go beyond just offering it and we need to make it a standard feature of all new homes. The caller's absolutely right. And, in fact, one of the new developments of solar panels—you were asking about this earlier—is they now make solar shingles. Basically, rooftop shingles of all different types that are literally a solar photovoltaic electricity generating system. It fits seamlessly into your roof, and this is sort of the next level for residential market especially for new construction. You save a lot of cost – price – you know, you save a lot of money by doing it that way and as the caller mentioned, you can roll it into your mortgage.
MCALLISTER: You can also do that on – do solar shingles and building integrated PV, it's called, when you replace your roof.
DEL CHIARO: Right.
MCALLISTER: So if you have an existing structure and you're replacing your roof, you know, every 20 years, 30 years, you can actually save some money on that roof replacement by combining it with solar.
DEL CHIARO: Right.
MCALLISTER: Now, the other thing I'll say is that our own Lori Saldana here in our region has, the last couple years, been sponsoring a bill that would lock in what are already goals from the Public Utilities Commission which is to require all new residential construction to be solar, to be net energy zero, actually, by 2020, and all new commercial by 2030. So that is already a goal – those are goals that have been adopted in the regulatory side of things already and there – we're looking for ways to get those locked in through legislation and Lori Saldana's been a really big leader in that.
DEL CHIARO: Right.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both quickly in closing, in the opening I mentioned that the California legislature has a goal of a million solar powered homes by 2017. Right now, I think the number is somewhere in the area of 50,000 throughout California. And I'm wondering, Bernadette, if you think that that goal is attainable?
DEL CHIARO: Absolutely. If we keep up with our current growth rate right now that we've seen over the past couple of years, we will hit the million solar roof scale by 2017. That said, it is – You know, we still need kind of all hands on deck. We need consumers that are interested in going solar to investigate it, see if it's right for them, and then make the jump. We need mayors like Jerry Sanders to make – roll out financing programs so that there's, you know, no money down, you can go solar today kind of programs. And we need the state and federal government to continue to remove barriers for people investing in solar power. So all hands on deck, but if we do that we absolutely can get there and we can solarize America as well and become a world leader in solar power.
CAVANAUGH: And, Andrew, I'm wondering if there's one hurdle that you'd like to see overcome in the effort to have more houses put solar panels…
CAVANAUGH: Well, what would it be?
MCALLISTER: You know, it's one of these issues where there's no silver bullet, there's really silver buckshot.
MCALLISTER: So there's a bunch of different things that need to happen. But, in particular, I think financing is a huge – the upper end capital cost is a huge one, and complementing that is getting the cost down so that it does really, you know, we reach – We're almost to parity, I would say, in many situations as far as getting the cost of solar down to that of the alternatives, the grid alternatives. But I think that cost reduction will only make it more viable over time. But, you know, I really think that this region has a huge opportunity to go – You know, the goal for the region, we'll hit about 200 megawatts by 2016, which is what roughly the California Solar Initiative goals are. But five times that over the next decade after that? If the market has really been transformed and if prices have come down a little bit. And, you know, the carbon issue, the climate change issue, is only going to get – it's only going to get more urgent. So, you know, up to 1,000 megawatts, say, by 2025 or something, I think it's completely doable. And that would be, you know, ten to fifteen percent of our power, of our overall consumption coming from solar on people's rooftops. There's no reason why we can't go even beyond that.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, we're on track. Thank you, Andrew McAllister, Director of Programs, the California Center for Sustainable Energy. Andrew, thanks so much.
MCALLISTER: It's been a pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: And Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean energy advocate for Environment California, thank you for speaking with us.
DEL CHIARO: Thanks. Way to go, San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: You can continue this discussion online. First of all, thank you to everyone who called this morning. Sorry we couldn't get to all of your calls but you can post your comments online at KPBS.org/TheseDays. Stay with us as These Days continues in just a moment.